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Don't Panic!
The Hitchhiker's Film is Quite a Ride
Warning: Mild Spoilers Within

One might fear that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike anything else Douglas Adams had his name attached to. And while it's true, this posthumous production of a project Adams initiated stretches past what one has come to expect of something labeled "Hitchhiker's Guide," don't panic–you're still in for quite a ride.

But before I go into a comparative review of the Hitchhiker's movie, let's just look at it as a film, in and of itself for a moment. It's a British/American hybrid of a hybrid comedy/sci-fi genre, and overall it manages to balance this mixture of elements quite smoothly and effectively. I've never quite seen anything like it on the big screen–and that's a good thing–we need something to shake up typical Hollywood formulas a bit.

It's about a quintessential Everyman, Arthur Dent, who, like many of us, gets routinely screwed by bureaucracy, is not as brave as he would like to think he is, is just looking to be loved and appreciated, and just, for the life of him, cannot get the hang of Thursdays. The poor man's planet is destroyed and he ends up facing nasty big green aliens (who read astonishingly awful poetry), rides the most technologically advanced space ship in the universe, gets ignored by an idiot who happens to be President of the Galaxy, and most worse, he has to face that which we all truly dread most: trying to communicate honestly with the person we care about most. The best of us might buckle under such pressure, but this character who is rather mincing at first comes to find his backbone through the events of the film. Martin Freeman plays a wonderful Arthur, who plays up the characters flaws while still drawing us in so that we relate to him, and ultimately root for him in the end.

The other final remaining human in the universe is Trillian, a slightly nerdy yet gorgeous adventuring physicist played by the comely Zooey Deschanel; she's a lovely character but almost a bit too down-to-earth for someone who seems to be ever seeking new horizons. Absolutely stunning is Stephen Fry, although we never get to see him–he's the voice of the Book for which the movie is named, and delivers the dry sardonic text of the Guide just perfectly. More disappointing are the characters of Ford Prefect (Mos Def) and Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), although I'm not sure I can say that's necessarily the fault of the actor in either case. Ford seems to be used largely as an exposition device (something the Guide should be doing) and then isn't given much to do other than react to other people–a man who is apparently a space hitchhiker and researcher for this wholly remarkable book should have a little bit more to do and say. Zaphod, as egotistical president of the Universe, should have wowed the audience with more than silly one-liners and slapstick humor; I can see in his slight Texan accent and brainlessness that this President may obviously a parody of a certain famous political figure, but it just seems out of place and doesn't do much for us–especially when the better comedy of the film is more on a more thoughtful satiric level, not simply blundering mockery.

There's also a tremendous supporting cast, including the voice of Alan Rickman and the costumed body of Warwick Davis, who unite in the mighty form of Marvin the Paranoid Android, who gets some wonderful lines, and the cast of aliens chasing down errant President Beeblebrox all have a gooey slimy charm of their own.

The script is overall funny and well-paced, but is mainly a series of linked adventures more than a whole story (but for those familiar with Hitchhiker's in its other forms, this is not new). A key element is its humor, and there are some brilliantly funny moments, but it seems there were a few punchlines flubbed and the timing a bit off in places. The comedy was a mixture of social satire ("Leave this to me, I'm British. I know how to queue!"), intelligent and ironic non-sequiturs, and plain old silly mindless slapstick (see Zaphod). It's not really an action film, per se, although we do get to see some aliens firing horribly badly at the heroes and great spaceship chase scenes.

Visually, all of the science fiction elements are beautifully realized: the muppets that are the Vogons are the best slimy evil aliens I've ever seen; the spaceship Heart of Gold has a unique, simple yet "cool" and space age look and its unusual effects on probability (turning Ford and Arthur temporarily into sofas) are well done. All of the "space" effects are stunning (such as a two-sun sunset and the destruction of our home planet), and the graphics for the Guide have a smooth "retro" feel that accentuates Fry's narration with subtle animated humor.

In general, it isn't the most mind-bogglingly brilliant thing I've ever seen, but it's a hell of a lot of fun, and has just enough character development and intellectual humor to stave off the need for lemon juice to fuel my brain (you'll understand if you see the film).

Now, how does it compare to the rest of the Hitchhiker's franchise? 42. No really... There's been a lot of complaints about this film from Adams fans, most of which began several years before the first scene was actually shot. Most of the core complaints revolve around the idea that "It isn't enough like the original book." I haven't the slightest idea what they are talking about, really. There is no "original book"; the truly original (and thus theoretically most "pure") version of the Hitchhiker's Guide story was a BBC Radio Series. Then there was a book, then ultimately four more books, not to mention a TV series, a computer game, and a reprise/sequel radio series (the "Quandary Phase" of the Radio Series is airing right now; go listen to it on BBC Radio 4 Online; you can also play the computer game here). It is true that the movie isn't quite like any of these–but it's true also that no one of these things exactly resembles the other. I could go on a tirade about how the movie isn't at all like the video game and that I'm infuriated that the film doesn't feature the Thing Your Aunt Gave You That You Don't Know What It Is, but what would be the point? Likewise, a deep analysis of all that it's missing from the various incarnations of the Guide would be silly.

Let's look at it on a broader scale then: what the different iterations of Hitchhiker's share in common is Arthur Dent, a mildly spineless British man stuck in his dressing gown who's forced to become a space adventurer, the other main characters and crew of the ship Heart of Gold and their characterizations, and clear irreverent mockery of just about everything we as a society hold dear.

Arthur, they got right. I think I'll always hear Simon Jones's (radio and TV) voice as the "true" Arthur, but Martin Freeman does a fantastic job, and gives the character that necessary bit of heart so we all just don't want to hit him when he's whining again about his cup of tea. He's been given a "love" story with Trillian in this version, which is more of an exaggeration of that side of his character (Arthur did have a thing for Trillian and does have a romantic side) than an addition, although some fans want to pretend it's not so. It's obvious the love angle was developed to make it more Hollywood palatable in some ways, and yet it also helps string the film together: one of the features of the Guide is that in most forms it's really a bunch of mini-adventures held together by a single overall idea (e.g., the quest for the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything). For a film an episodic-styled story doesn't work so well, and this one is as episodic as it could be without being utterly distracting; the love story helps remind us what's going on and gives some additional threads to tie the events of the story together. And frankly, I've wanted Trillian and Arthur to get together since I was about 11 years old, a yearning revisited last fall listening to the "Tertiary Phase" of the Radio Series, when Arthur so brilliantly stood up for Trillian against a Thunder God. As far as I'm concerned, Trillian is better than an infinity of Lintillas, and I'm glad the idea got explored in depth this time, even if it does add some sappiness to a story that is supposed to take place in a usually cruel universe with an utterly bizarre sense of humor.

And speaking of Trillian, I like this incarnation of her, but she's not quite the original–she lacks the zip and confidence of the Trillian of the radio series or books (especially as played by the wonderful Susan Sheridan). But she is not stupid, airheaded, nor parodically American as the version played by Sandra Dickinson in the TV series was, and I say a million hallelujahs in thanks for that. Yes, Zooey is American, but unlike Sandra, you don't really notice that as a key character trait; she just has a different accent than Arthur. The film Trillian is also brilliantly portrayed as an astrophysicist without anyone ever saying she is one–she understands and operates the Heart of Gold better than anyone else and is clearly the most intelligent member of the crew–unlike in most other versions of the story, where she says she is an astrophysicist but never actually gets to do anything, well, astrophysicisty (she still is of course intelligent, barring the TV version). So boo for lacking Trillian's original verve and making her a bit of a sap, but yay for still making her a smart and admirable character.

Mos Def as Ford was okay, but Ford's party-loving nature was severely lacking–and again, part of the problem was that he never really seemed to do anything. Maybe he never did before and I just didn't notice, but perhaps I shouldn't have, if that's the case. His obsession with towels in the film is exaggerated and bizarre, as it's never properly explained (there's something on the cutting room floor, I'm sure, that was to help that), even though we do get to see the myriad uses of the towel in action. Zaphod is the absolute worst. While they kept his ego and his fashion sense, he completely utterly lacked the coolness of Zaphod of the other Hitchhiker's stories. You could not store a side of meat in this man and keep it for a month, baby. The original Zaphod was vapid, but he made up for that in actual wit. This Zaphod was, as someone else best described it, the "love child of Freddie Mercury and George W. Bush," with the coolness factor of the latter parent. The move from Space-Californian to Space-Texan was disappointing, and he's largely a "just for show" character who seems little more than a plot device and a comic relief schtick.

As for the others, the Guide was the Guide and absolutely wonderful; most of its entries were adapted from previous versions but it had a few new things to say as well. Marvin was depressed as always, and Alan Rickman was inspired casting; some fans complain that he was "too cute-looking" but they forget that he was designed to be "your plastic pal who's fun to be with" by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation–the incongruity between his appearance and his personality is absolutely perfectly appropriate. (And speaking of Marvin, we get to see the old school TV version standing on queue on the Vogon planet. By comparison, I like the new design better.) Slartibartfast was himself, and Prosthetnic Vogon Jeltz was given a more bureaucratic nature which makes his callousness all the more chilling.

The humor was good in this, although again there seemed to be some lines that were missed or mis-timed; there could have been so mucn more! But the best bits were still the best of what I would expect from a Hitchhiker's story, and the script combines some classic Hitchhiker's anecdotes with some new one-liners and ironic situations. Still, while the film was deliciously irreverent (especially for something coming out of Hollywood), it just wasn't irreverent enough.

There were a lot of "new" bits in the film, as in things never seen before in any other version of Hitchhikers. For me, as a long time fan, this was good because it meant I wasn't falling asleep because I knew what was going to happen next and what jokes to expect. We got to see the Church of the Great Arkleseizure along with its head, Humma Kavula, a role Douglas Adams created especially for John Malkovich. We saw the dawn of a new and furiously terrifying weapon (which of course will not work on women). We saw the planet of the Vogons and its most horrid locale, where we were glued to our seats watching the RIVETING HEART POUNDING UTTERLY BONE-CHILLING ORGY OF... form signing (the whole scene was a beautiful homage to Douglas Adams's game Bureaucracy without being derivative). Good stuff man. No really, I loved it, and did I already mention the Vogons were great?

Also, I do feel the need to point out that Douglas Adams did write the original script for this film before he died, and most of the differences in the basic plot were his idea. I must say however it is obvious that there were changes more probably made by the scriptwriter and the director (I imagine the love story being one of them), and so the text does not have quite the "Adamsian" feel the other Hitchhiker's stories did, but it is still very, very recognizably Hitchhiker's–straight down to a version of the Eagles' "Journey of the Sorcerer" playing during the opening credits.

Overall, the film was not as good as the book or radio series, better than the TV series (and with MUCH better special effects), and nowhere near as frustrating as the game but likewise not as intelligent. And while it misses the mark of being up there with the best versions of the Guide, it is still quite a lot of fun and offers both a lot of nostalgic moments and new Adams material for fans to enjoy. At least the ones who wouldn't prefer whining about the film instead. Which actually, as I think of it, leaves very few left, but still.

Unless you stubbornly need to stick to your "original book," go see the damn movie. And if you've never seen anything to do with Hitchhiker's before, go see the damn movie! It'll open you up to a whole new universe that's so mind-bogglingly huge, you won't care that it's the end of the world.

Oh and just as a post-script, I'll mention again–if you want to play the game or hear the current, latest radio drama of Hitchhiker's, go to its BBC Radio 4 Website.  

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All original materials © 2005 R. Pickard